Buffalo football is a tough program to get a grasp on. For its first decade in FBS a MAC afterthought, they burst through under head coach Turner Gill in 2008 with an 8-win season; Gill's departure brought along a rebuilding phase, but Jeff Quinn was fired midway through the 2014 season despite an 8-win campaign in 2013 and a decent enough 3-4 record. But in bringing in Lance Leipold, Buffalo made perhaps the biggest splash of the coaching carousel.
John McWhinnie, of SBNation's Bull Run blog, is here to tell us just what Leipold brings to upstate New York, and how well suited Buffalo is to take advantage of a reeling, imploding, Nittany Lion team. Thanks for your insight, John!
Black Shoe Diaries: Buffalo made a splash in hiring Lance Leipold, who had been spectacularly successful at the D-III level. How excited are Buffalo fans about the Leipold era, just two years removed from an 8-win season?
Bull Run: The buzz among Buffalo fans has been pretty palpable leading into the season and for good reason. As you mentioned, his record really speaks for itself, and while his hire didn't really fit the Danny White MO at the time (see: Bobby Hurley), many fans were excited by the fact that Lance knows football, and is a very down to earth and personable man who knows what it takes to be consistently successful on the football field. And consistent success on the gridiron has been hard to come by for UB fans. People are hoping that Leipold can do what no other was able to and string together winning season and have UB consistently in bowl and MAC Championship contention.
BSD: Buffalo beat up on FCS Albany in the opener. How much of the blowout win was simply to be expected, and to what extent did it provide reasons for real optimism?
BR: UB's previous two head coaches, Jeff Quinn and Turner Gill both opened their careers in Amherst with wins over FCS teams and everyone expected Lance Leipold to add to his impressive 109-6 record by beating up on Albany. Other than just expecting the win, many people didn't know what to expect from the new offensive and defensive schemes that Leipold and his staff installed during the offseason. In the grand scheme of things, the fact that the offense was efficient and effective, and that other than the opening drive the defensive was effective in halting any Albany drive, provided real reason for optimism for fans because of how bland the offense was last year, and how laughably ineffective the defense was.
BSD: As Buffalo fans must surely know, Penn State's offensive line is basically the football equivalent of Nickelback. How well prepared is Buffalo to exploit that weakness and put pressure on Christian Hackenberg?
BR: During the postgame press conference after the victory against Albany, junior cornerback Boise Ross mentioned how the team was better prepared for that game than they had been for any other game that he has played in. Leipold has a particular attention to detail, and his assistants, many of whom worked under Leipold at Wisconsin-Whitewater, including defensive coordinator Brian Borland, share in his mentality. Borland will have his men prepared to exploit any weaknesses that Penn State may have, and I'm sure they have been closely studying the gametape from Penn State's opener. I fully expect Borland to dial up the heat and try to make Hackenberg's life as miserable as possible with his aggressive 4-3 scheme.
BSD: The line in this game is Penn State -21. Is the Buffalo defense possibly bad enough to give up three touchdowns to a Penn State team that literally could not have played worse over the last three quarters of last week's game against Temple?
BR: The Buffalo defense isn't bad, per se, but there is a wealth of youth on all levels of the defense. True freshman Brandon Stanback started at free safety in the opener, and 3 other true freshmen are second on the depth chart at their respective positions along the defensive side of the ball. As Leipold has said all offseason, the defense is a work in progress, but they showed flashes against Albany and how they hold up against Penn State will be a good barometer for how they are developing. Personally, I think that UB will cover the spread because the offense is effective and will help keep the pressure off of the defense.
BSD: On the other hand, Penn State's defense suffered mightily after starting MLB Nyeem Wartman-White went down with a season-ending knee injury. What is Leipold's offensive philosophy, and how will he look to keep Joe Licata protected from a very solid Nittany Lion defensive line?
BR: Leipold's offensive philosophy can be summed up in one word: balance. From day one Leipold has preached that a balanced offense is the key to a championship caliber team and that there would be a quality mix of run and pass to keep the defense on its heels. There is also a saying that variety is the spice of life, well variety is the spice of the Lance Leipold offense as well. Leipold will throw all sorts of different formations and personnel groupings at the defense, as well as run hurry-up and tempo offense when he sees that the offensive is starting to gash the defense for chunk yardage. Against Albany when Leipold went to a hurry-up offense, UB could not be stopped by Albany, and Leipold forced Albany to burn timeouts to adjust to what the offense was doing. Another staple of the Leipold offense are "married plays". And a "married play" is a take on an option play, where Joe Licata will put the ball into the stomach of the running back and will quickly read the defense to see how they are reacting. Depending on how the defense reacts, Licata can hand the ball off or choose to pull it out and throw it; his first touchdown throw to Marcus McGill is a perfect example of this. He will look to protect Licata by employing plenty of two tight end sets, and using fullback Kendall Patterson to chip in on pass-blocking. The married plays that I mentioned above will also probably be heavily used, allowing Licata to use his decision-making ability to take what the defense is giving him. Leipold also employs a zone blocking scheme that will need to be effective in pass-pro, but more importantly, run-blocking. If the UB offense can run the ball effectively then it will force Penn State to respect the run, thereby giving Licata more time in the pocket.
BSD: If Buffalo is going to put a scare into Penn State, or even pull off the upset, what will need to go right? What players will have come up big for the Bulls?
BR: If UB is going to put a scare, or even pull the upset a couple of things have to happen. First, UB will need to get to Hackenberg early and often. Temple showed that if you can effectively rush Hackenberg, that the Penn State offense will grind to a halt. Second, UB needs to rush the ball well to help keep the defense from breathing down Joe Licata's neck; and by rush effectively I mean that Anthone Taylor will need to rush for at least 100 yards, closer to 150 if UB really wants to win the game. So, some players that will need to step up:
Boise Ross - He converted from WR mid-season last year and showed flashes of big-time playmaking ability last season, accounting for half of the Bulls' interceptions (and they only had 2 interceptions last season, that's how bad the defense was). In the opener against Albany he had a diving interception after he cut underneath the receiver's route, and he also dropped an easy interception in the first half. Ross will need to blanket whoever Hackenberg's top target is and neutralize him. If Ross has a big game, then the defense will feed off of his energy.
James O'Hagan - A redshirt-freshman center who was a national champion wrestler in high school, he's the second center to ever snap the ball to Joe Licata so they're still developing their chemistry. O'Hagan had a few errors against Albany such as a false start, and a snap that sailed over Licata's head. These errors weren't critical against Albany in a game that was well out of hand, but against Penn State, errors like that can swing the momentum of the game in Penn State's favor, which would not be conducive to UB winning. O'Hagan just needs to have a clean game and not have any mistakes like he did in the Albany game.
The D-Line - I'll have to use a cop-out here and single out the defensive line of starters Max Perisse, Brandon Crawford, Solomon Jackson, and Demone Harris. These guys will be UB's primary pass rushers going after Hackenberg, so if they are successful and can generate a consistent push on the pocket then UB will be in contention to win. But, if they don't get any pressure on Hackenberg then the rest of the defense will need to step up to make up for the lack of a pass rush.
BSD: How doyou see this one shaping up?
BR: From what I saw in the box last week against Albany, and what I saw of the PSU loss to Temple, I think this will be closer than Vegas, and many people think. Leipold is an excellent game planner and I'm certain he'll be ready for whatever Penn State throws his way, the issue is UB's inexperience on defense. If the defense is able to limit the Penn State attack then the offense can do its job and score points. There isn't a team that I'm convinced can hold this offense to under 20 points, and I don't think Penn State will. Joe Licata is a criminally underrated QB, and even though he doesn't have the ideal size, his decision making and comfort level on the field cannot be matched and he'll deliver as he always has. Licata coupled with the dangerous 1-2 combo at running back of Anthone Taylor and Jordan Johnson will be a load for the Penn State defense. That being said, on our weekly football podcast Bulls and Beers I made my prediction with a Penn State win, but by a touchdown or less. I think UB's strengths match up well with Penn State's weaknesses, but I'm not sure if the inexperience on defense is enough to overcome the Penn State offense, even though it was so bad against Temple. This is going to be a very fun game to watch, and I look forward to it.
Thanks again, John, and be sure to read Bull Run for everything you need to know about Buffalo football.